Four Lessons from a Nine-Year-Old on Writing Picture Books

1. After she’s done some of her “official” homework, Tina produces her “other” work: a book of paper of various colors and a two-page spread of pencil drawings. “I’m going to write stories about dolphins,” she announces. But when you’re in grade three, getting things down on paper can be pretty tedious. With the creative juices coursing through her veins and the two-page spread of main characters beckoning, Tina hands me paper and a pencil.

“You can write your ideas,” she announces, and then tells me hers.

I understand her conundrum. Tina knows it’s polite to listen to others, and there are times when she thinks I have good ideas for stories–but this isn’t one of them. I faithfully transcribe her ideas, adding one or two of my own with permission.

Lesson: When the ideas come, get them down however you can. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak wrote notes to himself on his shirt sleeves, some writers today use voice recognition software, and, if you have one, an indulgent grandma may be the wisest choice.

2. I’m impressed with Tina’s teachers. Not only does Tina have a solid foundation in phonics, she has a highly developed sense of what a story is. Tina has learned that every story needs a problem, and as we study her drawing, her main characters’ problems emerge and intertwine.

Then she tells me we’re going to mix the colors, and shows me Eric Carle’s beautiful book Dream Snow. And when she writes her story, she’s not going to simply place the text at the bottom of the page (how plebeian would that be?). She’s going to sprinkle the text here and there–artfully, like her mentors.

Dream Snow

Lesson: Take your craft seriously, and learn from those who know.

3. “This is boring!” I’m a little hurt. We’ve been reading a story about a small animal rescue, a topic near to Tina’s heart, and she doesn’t want to finish it. Why not? It’s at her level . . . and that’s the problem. It’s an easy reader, with controlled, repeated vocabulary, and simple sentence structure–and it doesn’t SOUND right to Tina. (I’m actually a fan of easy readers, but in this case it wasn’t working for Tina.)

Lesson: Read the story out loud to someone who will give you honest feedback.

4. I’ve watched some videos on bower birds and written what I feel is an engaging story about a little girl, her friend, and a thieving member of this fascinating avian family. But the ending is hard. Maybe I could leave it kind of open? Tina and I read the story, and she’s intrigued all right. She enters in, marveling at the tricks our heroes play on the villain until . . . what? I stopped the story there? Even after I’ve put her to bed, Tina is finishing the story. Her ending is most satisfying. It not only ties up the loose ends, it demonstrates our male hero’s commitment to and compassion for his lady friend.

Lesson: Don’t skimp on the ending, or your granddaughter may be tired for school the next day.

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Categories: Journey | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Four Lessons from a Nine-Year-Old on Writing Picture Books

  1. I love those times we see lessons in the “everyday” and they feed into our craft. Thank you, Margaret!

  2. What agood lesson children can give us! Right now i am reading ,or rathr looking at picture books to learn more about what makes them so adorable. With many it is the pictures; with some it is the way the limited number of words are put into the pictures and with others , the story leads to an interesting and unexpected ending. This month is Read for research month( REFOREMO) and, if you join, you are committed to reading 5 books a day I would never have looked without this and I am delighted with the wonerful books I’ve found. Peter Brown, Molly Idle. melanie wat and Kelly diPucchio are just some authors who write memorable picture books.

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